(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth has been working on a novel set in eighteenth-century Scotland. It’s Philip’s first historical novel, and if he has anything to say about it, it will be his last.
(Baruth) I’m writing a novel right now about an eighteenth-century biographer named James Boswell, who lived most of his life in Edinburgh, Scotland. But about four months ago, I stumbled onto an interesting little footnote: when he was seventeen, the young Boswell had a nervous breakdown and got packed off to a tiny spa town to drink sulphur water from a little spring up in the mountains.
This tiny spa town was called Moffat, and in 1757 it was barely a fleck on the map: they had sheep and the sulphur spring, and that’s all they had. But almost immediately I felt the plot of the book I’m working on start to pull toward that Moffat part of the Boswell story. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know.
So I go to the library and I start researching the eighteenth-century history of the town of Moffat. This proves fairly easy because in 1757 Moffat has 1,560 inhabitants, and nothing whatsoever has been written about it.
Time for Plan B. I get on the Internet and finally I hit paydirt: present-day Moffat has a tiny little museum. Brilliant. But the museum has no email address, and no one answers the phone, ever, for weeks on end. So I call up some maps of the town, and then I call the pub across the street, the Black Bull Inn. I have to hold the phone away from my ear because apparently everyone talks really loudly at the Black Bull Inn. But finally the bartender tells me that the museum is closed until spring. But there’s an art gallery in town, he says, and the guy who runs it has a daughter who owns a used bookshop, and maybe she can help.
So I call the art gallery, and the elderly man there gives me his daughter’s number at home, and when I reach her she’s this wonderfully soft-spoken sort of Scottish used bookstore owner. She’s cooking a roast, but she takes the time to chat with me. And she tells me about a book written by a local historian, now deceased, called Old Moffat. It’s packed with eighteenth century history. She has a copy, she says.
“Perfect,” I say, and I ask her if she can send it to me.
“Oh no,” she answers, “There’s a man down the road’s borrowed it.” Can she get it back, I ask? I’m willing to pay whatever she wants.
“Oh no,” she says. “The man’s recently lost his wife, you see.”
And so that’s the end of the trail: there’s a book that has everything I need, but the man who borrowed it has lost his wife, and the soft-spoken used bookstore owner is simply too decent and caring and human to bug him about it. So I thank her, and I hang up feeling like I’ve done all I can do; and somehow I’m even a little sad for this man I’ve never met across the world who’s lost his wife.
But it turns out that’s not the end. About two weeks later, I get another call, and it’s the soft-spoken used bookstore owner again; and she says that she spoke with the man’s neighbor, and the neighbor said the man seemed to be doing all right these days, and even wanted company; and so the bookstore owner had dropped by to see him, and in the course of a nice long conversation she’d gotten the book back. Now she’s wondering if I’d like her to send it to me, and, she adds very shyly, whether I have a major credit card.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington, who teaches at the University of Vermont. His latest novel is “The X President.”